The Mississippi State Bulldogs are off to their worst start since 2013 and have yet to hit the most challenging stretch of their schedule.
Odds are against the Bulldogs getting back into the SEC West race, but a quality bowl game is in the mix if they can traverse a brutal season-ending stretch of No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 1 Alabama, No. 22 Arkansas and No. 12 Ole Miss.
But first, Mississippi State faces a BYU team (3-3) on Friday that upset Michigan State 31-14 last week in East Lansing. The Bulldogs (2-3) lost 38-14 to Auburn last week.
“When I got here, the expectations were if we can go to a bowl game every once in a while that would be great,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. “That’s certainly not the expectations within our program now, which is great. The expectations of the players have changed. They have bigger expectations and pressure from the outside. Not just themselves but from themselves and the outside.
“Every year just brings a different challenge. Last year was a challenge, go back two years ago and we go back with the challenge of being No. 1 in America and all the challenge that that brought.”
The honeymoon period for BYU’s new coaching staff, including coach Kalani Sitake and offensive coordinator Ty Detmer, seemed to be over after the team fell to 1-3. The love is back after consecutive wins. Mississippi State may be in the midst of a rough year, but a win over an SEC team would be one of the highlights of BYU’s season.
“They are a resilient bunch and they never quit,” Sitake said about his team. “When you have that, you'll have some success. We’ve faced a lot of great teams and another one this week. Nothing has changed. We'll go into the schedule and we'll be tough. Obviously we lost some close ones but we'll build off that and have it work in a positive way to help us win this week.”
Things to watch when BYU hosts Mississippi State:
ALL ABOUT FITZGERALD: When Mississippi State is playing well, it’s usually because quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is carrying the load. The sophomore is averaging 78 yards rushing per game, which ranks fifth nationally for a quarterback.
Fitzgerald is one of only three quarterbacks in the country who has had at least 300 yards passing and 100 yards rushing in a game this season. One of the others is Louisville’s Lamar Jackson.
RECORD BREAKER: BYU senior running back Jamaal Williams has averaged 206 rushing yards in the last three games and is ranked No. 2 in the nation with 866. He needs 63 more to set the school career record.
“He’s explosive, strong, quick, hits the hole, has the speed to break away when he does get out there,” Detmer said. “He’s one of the best to play here and his yardage shows that and the consistency he’s had year in and year out.”
WATCH FOR JEFFERSON: Mississippi State defensive end A.J. Jefferson is third in the Southeastern Conference and 10th nationally with nine tackles for loss. The senior has 33 1 / 2 tackles for loss during his career, which ranks fifth in school history.
BACK ON THE BLOCK: Mullen and quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson are very familiar with BYU and the state of Utah. Mullen coached quarterbacks at the University of Utah from 2003-04. Johnson played quarterback at Utah and was the captain during the Utes’ 13-0 2008 season. He also coached quarterbacks for the Utes from 2010-11 before being promoted to offensive coordinator from 2012-13.
STILL ON TOP: Senior quarterback Taysom Hill remains the starter for BYU after struggling early in the season and hearing some fans calling for sophomore Tanner Mangum. He hasn’t had an interception in the last two games after throwing six in the first four games.
“He’s a unique player,” Mullen said. “Maybe like Tim Tebow in that way, he’s a physical runner, a will-yourself-to-win guy. He’s not going to make dynamic plays running with the ball until all of a sudden he breaks into the open field and nobody catches him. He runs physical and you got him in the pocket and he really shows up on 3rd-and-4, or the game is on the line and he just finds a way to scramble and stay alive. He’s got that ‘it' factor as a quarterback.”
Who: Mississippi State at BYU
When: 9:15 p.m. Friday
Radio: 1490 AM, 1640 AM